February 13, 2004

Study approves limited bowhead whale hunt

Review says current harvest won't jeopardize animals


Nunavut hunters can continue their subsistence hunt of bowhead whales, according to a study released this week by DFO. (FILE PHOTO)

The limited hunt of bowhead whales can continue, says the new bowhead conservation strategy.

The strategy, written in collaboration with the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board and the World Wildlife Fund, was officially released this week by the federal department of Fisheries and Oceans.

A hunt of one whale every two years from the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin population and one whale every 13 years from the Baffin Bay-Davis Strait population will not jeopardize the bowheads, says the strategy, which is called for in the federal Species at Risk Act.

The numbers and location of the future bowhead hunts are no change from what Nunavut has been doing since the first bowhead hunt in 1996 and are in accordance with the land claims agreement that gives Nunavut the right to hunt one bowhead every two years if the bowhead population can support it.

"Bowhead whales have been a key element of Inuit culture for centuries. The completion of this bowhead conservation strategy, in conjunction with the Inuit Bowhead Knowledge Study and ongoing research on bowhead whales in Nunavut waters, will help ensure that Inuit can continue their sustainable use of bowhead whales for generations to come," said Ben Kovic, chairperson of the NWMB in a news release on the new strategy.

The Bowhead Conservation Strategy looks at the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay-Davis Strait bowheads as separate populations based on summer distribution patterns and how they were affected by whaling.

The population in Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin was around 600 whales prior to heavy whaling from 1860 to 1915. Based on recent aerial surveys, the population now has at least 345 bowheads.

The Baffin Bay-Davis Strait stock likely numbered around 12,000 in 1825. Now, it's thought to have between 350 to 375 bowheads.

The bowhead conservation strategy is intended to include both scientific and Inuit traditional knowledge and encourage the participation of Inuit communities.

What's new in this strategy are five short-term recovery objectives:

A number of actions are also identified in the new strategy, such as surveying the range of bowhead whales to identify important habitats, determining current population levels, and developing and carrying out plans to monitor the effects of threats.

A three-year habitat stewardship program, involving research and stewardship training and activities for Igaliqtuuq, the bowhead sanctuary near Clyde River, was just completed. The third and final year of population surveys will be conducted in 2004.

Unlike other strategies, this one covers a long-term, 100-year time frame. That's because bowheads are thought to live to at least 200 years. Stock recovery is expected to be slow because bowheads' reproductive rate is low compared with other mammals.

New information on the population size could lead to changes in the strategy before the 100 years is up, and a negative reaction from conservation-minded groups such as the International Whaling Commission could stir up controversy over even a limited hunt.

In 2002, the IWC, the management group that determines worldwide quotas for large whales, refused to renew quotas for the traditional whale hunt in Alaska and Chukotka, although the group relented under pressure.

Canada left the IWC in 1981, shortly before the IWC imposed a ban on commercial whaling. Because Canada is not a member of the IWC, the group's decisions don't officially affect the future of the Nunavut bowhead hunt. But the IWC is increasingly negative about any whale hunting at all.

Nunavut started its bowhead hunt in 1996 with a whale taken near Repulse Bay. In 1998, a bowhead was killed near Pangnirtung in Cumberland Sound, and Coral Harbour celebrated the millennium year with a successful whale hunt in the Hudson Bay-Foxe Basin area. In 2002, the hunt took place in Igloolik-Hall Beach.

In 1980, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada designated Nunavut's bowheads as "endangered" although Inuit knowledge supported by scientific research has since said the number of whales in the region has been increasing in recent years.

In 2000, a five-year, $500,000 study that relied on traditional Inuit knowledge and anecdotal evidence concluded that Nunavut's bowhead whale population has become more numerous and should not be considered endangered.

This Inuit Bowhead Knowledge Study said the whales should be moved off Environment Canada's endangered species list and onto the "species at risk" list.

The report estimated 1,000 bowhead whales in Nunavut waters.